The Pioneers of the Search for Meaning
In India or the West?
In the early literature and ancient texts, where do we find the earliest mention of existential questions? When did humans start probing the meaning and origin of their existence?
In the western world, it was as early as in the 7th century BCE that someone asked this question. Thales of Miletus (624 BCE to 546 BCE), a Greek philosopher and considered by many as the father of science and western philosophy, could be one who raised this question first, as far as recorded history is concerned. He asked the question, where do all things come from, and the answer that he arrived at was, surprisingly, from water. However, one should not rule off his findings as to the faulty assumptions of a less evolved mind. His importance lies in the method which he employed to answer the question. He was the first philosopher to try to explain the natural phenomena using natural facts rather than faith or religious beliefs. It was the moisture content that he observed in all things that led him to conclude that everything came from water.
Anaximander, another Greek philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE asked the same question and he eventually came to believe that everything came from the “boundless”. The only existing fragment of Anaximander's book, as retold by Simplicus, another Greek philosopher from a later period, reads,
“Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
As is the order of things;
For they execute the sentence upon one another
- The condemnation for the crime -
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.”[i]
Anaximander argued that the first human was not an infant because it would not have survived on its own. So, he reasoned that humans might have evolved from the infants of some other animal, which are better equipped to survive on their own.
Ancient Indian texts are another place where one can look to get an idea of what the early people thought about the beginning of life and especially, human life. The earliest mentions are from 17th century BCE.
In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad (1200-1000 BCE), a Hindu ancient text which is a part of one of the four Vedas, namely, Yajurveda, there is one of the earliest mentions of the source of ego and the origin and meaning of life. In this text, a king named Brihadratha asked the saint, Sakayanya, about the meaning of life. Sakayanya then cites Valakhilyas, a people mentioned in the sacred texts, asking another saint, pragapathi krathu, this question,
“To what supernatural being belongs this great power by which such a body has been made intelligent? Or who is the driver? What thou knowest, O Saint, tell us that”. [i]
The Upanishads, which are also ancient Indian texts of a religious and philosophical nature, supposed to be written between 800 BCE and 500 BCE, ask the same existential questions in a different manner. Specifically, there is Katopanishad, which is one among the 14 Upanishads, in which, a character named Nachiketa reaches the kingdom of death ruled by Yama, and asks him the question, ‘what happens after death?’
Brahmasutra, written by Badarayana also raises some existential questions (sutra means aphorism). Brahmasutra is supposed to have been written before 8th or 9th century BCE.
Brahmasutra reads as given below,
“All that existed then was void and formless: by
The great power of warmth was born that unit
Thereafter rose desire in the beginning, desire, the
Primal seed and germ of spirit
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered
The existence’s kinship in the non-existent
Transversely was their severing line extended
What was above it then, and what was below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces,
Free action here, and energy up yonder
Who verily know and who can here declare it?
Whence it was born and whence cae the creation?
The Gods were later than the world’s production
Who knows then whence it came into being?”[ii]
The Nasadiya Sukta is a part of Rigveda, an ancient text of Indian mythology, supposed to have been written in 1100-1700 BCE. Rigveda is a text among the oldest texts in the world.
Max Muller’s translation of the Nasadiya Sukta (verse) reads as below-
“There was not non-existent, nor existent: there
Was no realm of air, no sky beyond it
What covered in, and where?
And what gave shelter?
Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?”[iii]
12th century BCE is the period when late bronze age was ending. This is the century in which the Trojan war was waged and the legendary queen, Helen, died. This century saw the birth of the alphabet too. Obviously, human thought was evolving into a more advanced realm during this period and also importantly, these thoughts were getting recorded for posterity. A careful reader can note the similarities between the western and Indian thought in this area.
© 2019 Deepa